First post-DOMA ruling benefits widow

A Chicago widow was awarded death benefits under a retirement plan earned by her same-sex spouse in the first reported ruling relying on the Supreme Court’s recent Defense of Marriage Act ruling.

In Cozen O’Connor, P.C. vs. Jennifer Tobits, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania cited the higher court’s Windsor decision, which ruled that the federal government can no longer restrict the term “spouse” to members of the opposite sex.

Judge Darnell C. Jones II handed down the district court ruling on July 29.

“Following the (high) court’s ruling, the term ‘spouse’ is no longer unconstitutionally restricted to members of the opposite sex, but now rightfully includes those same-sex spouses in ‘otherwise valid marriages,’” Jones said in his ruling.

Jennifer Tobits and Sarah Farley married in Toronto in 2006 and lived in Chicago. Two weeks after their wedding, Farley was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. After four years of treatments, she died in September 2010, at age 37.

The lawsuit hinged on Farley’s parents’ claim to their daughter’s death benefits — including a profit-sharing pension plan — from her employer, the law firm Cozen O’Connor.

Tobits also filed for the benefit as the surviving spouse. In January 2011, the Philadelphia-based firm filed an action in eastern Pennsylvania district court to determine the beneficiary.

Both Cozen O’Connor and Farley’s parents argued that DOMA prevented the firm from recognizing Tobits and Farley’s marriage and thus recognizing Tobits as the surviving spouse. The Windsor decision — which granted a surviving widow tax benefits from the estate of her same-sex spouse — made it possible for Jones to rule otherwise.

Jones explained that spousal recognition in retirement plans are most definitely included in the federal ruling. This is so even though Pennsylvania is a state that only allows civil unions and is not one of the 13 states granting same-sex marriages.  

Tobits’ Attorney Teresa Renaker welcomed the ruling.

“This decision makes clear that federal pension law protects same-sex spouses just as it does opposite-sex spouses. Under the rationale of this decision, employees can be confident that their hard-earned retirement benefits will be there for their spouses. Protecting the retirement security of spouses is an important part of ensuring that employees get equal benefits from their retirement plans.”

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